Chapter 12


The Egyptian Campaign of 1798


May 19, 1798

The Army of the East leaves Toulon


The secret destination of this "armada" of 280 ships transporting 54,000 troops and 800 horses had been well guarded. The English, however, were convinced that the French intended to land on their shores. Napoleon was on board the Orient, Admiral Brueys’ ship. Many already famous Generals and others who were to become so were part of the expedition: Kléber, Desaix, Berthier, Bessières, Belliard, Bon, Davout, Duroc, Friant, Lannes, Caffarelli, Marmont, Dommartin, Menou, Reynier, Dumas, and Murat.


The distinguished scholars Gaspard Monge, Berthollet, and Geoffroy Saint Hilaire were part of a large contingent of scientists, administrators, jurists, archaeologists, engineers and artists who would endeavour to organize the life of the country and bring to light the riches that had been sleeping for millennia in the land of the Pharaohs.


But what a hand the Directory had played! Admiral Nelson, with his infinitely superior fleet, was cruising the waters off Toulon with only one aim in mind: to send all these fine people to the bottom of the sea. And he had a ninety percent chance of success. If it had not been for a succession of errors and the quite uncharacteristic clumsiness of Nelson, Napoleon would never have reached Egypt. It is almost incomprehensible that Nelson, in forty days of continuous pursuit and searching, was unable to find an immense fleet of 280 ships sailing in a line towards Crete and then to Egypt on a sea with such limited contours as the eastern Mediterranean.


Malta : Gozzo Island where Reynier's troups landed


June 11, 1798

Capture of Malta


Ferdinand de Himpech, Grand Master of the Order of Malta, refused to let the French ships take on supplies of water. He thus did Napoleon a great favour, by providing him with an excellent pretext to seize the island, which he needed urgently to ensure his later communications with France. The famous 9th demi-brigade, which had already distinguished itself in Italy, scaled the fortified slopes of the island of Gozo to the song of Le départ:


    The Republic calls us;

    We must know how to conquer, or how to die.

    A Frenchman must live for Her,

    For Her, a Frenchman would die!


    Victory, singing, opens us a path,

    Liberty guides our steps.

    And from the North to the South

    The warlike trumpet

    Has sounded the call to battle.


The 9th demi-brigade of infantry would later embroider in gold on its silken flag: Austerlitz – Wagram – La Moscowa – Solférino – Verdun – L’Ailette. In Algeria, the 9th Parachute Regiment, the inheritor of its traditions, was to ensure that the spirit of valour, courage and chivalry that Napoleon had instilled into his French soldiers, lived on. On April 29, 1958, in the battle of Souk-Ahras, the fiercest of the entire war, one of the Regiment’s companies, although composed of young conscripts and outnumbered four to one, would cut the dreaded 4th Faïlrek batallion to shreds. These much-vaunted shock troops of the Algerian National Liberation Army had just overcome a friendly unit and massacred all the prisoners, both healthy and wounded. Faithful to their secular traditions, the young Frenchmen did not kill their prisoners. Even though they were aware of their enemies’ criminal behaviour, they evacuated them by helicopter to the hospital at Souk-Ahras.


After twenty-four hours’ reflection, Hompesch handed over the keys of the fortress. Almost immediately, Napoleon drafted the sixteen chapters of the new constitution. The first chapter began with the words: “All inhabitants of the island of Malta shall become French citizens…” Stupefied by the miserable state of the 2000 Muslim slaves that he found locked up in the island’s jails, he freed them immediately. He also let the Knights Hospitaller leave for the destination of their choice; most of the French chose to follow him on his expedition to Egypt.


On June 19, after installing a garrison as a measure for defending the island against English attack, the convoy set sail again. It moved along the coast of Greece and then on to Crete. Napoleon issued a proclamation: “Soldiers! Whoever commits rape is a monster. Whoever indulges in looting dishonours us. You are about to undertake a conquest whose effects on civilization and trade will be enormous. There will be tiring marches; we shall be involved in several battles. The people we are going to live with are Muslims, and their first article of faith is ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet.’ Do not contradict them; show the same respect to their Imams as you have shown for rabbis and bishops; respect mosques as you have respected churches and synagogues."


Capture of Alexandria - July 1798


July 2, 1798

Capture of Alexandria


On July 1, in spite of strong winds and high seas, the French disembarked in the Bay of Marabout, 15 kilometers east of Alexandria. By title, Egypt belonged to the Turks of Sultan Selim III, but was in fact groaning under the yoke of the Mamelukes, the descendants of Circassian slaves commanded by Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey.


True to form, Napoleon did not lose a moment. At dawn on July 2, after marching all night, he attacked the fortified city of Alexandria. Menou took the triangular fort while Kléber and Bon forced their way into the city. By noon the city had fallen. Napoleon composed an address that was translated into all the languages spoken in Egypt and had it read to the population: “The French respect Allah. They are not making war on suzerain Turkey or on the Egyptians. They have come only to rid you of the Mamelouks and to bring you liberty, prosperity, and happiness.”


July 13, 1798

Victory at Chebreiss, halfway between Alexandria and Cairo


After July 3, when Napoleon and his army began their march towards Cairo across the Damanhour desert, Murad Bey left the capital with his formidable cavalry to bar his way. The trek across the desert was exhausting, especially when they had to endure the Khamsin, the hot sand- and dust-laden wind from the South that is related to the Sirocco in Algeria and the Chergui in Morocco. Fortunately, they reached the Nile on July 10 and were able to continue on their way under better conditions with a fleet of several dozen rowboats and the larger dhows that transported water, supplies, ammunition and a few pieces of artillery. It was on July 13, on the left bank of the Nile, that the first important engagement of the campaign took place. Murad Bey, his scimitar held high, charged at the head of 4,000 turbaned horsemen. Napoleon was sufficiently forewarned, however, and had ample time to prepare his reception. Murad came up against infantry divisions in hollow square formations, upon which he could make no impression. His massed cavalry charges were repulsed with heavy losses, and he had to sound the retreat.


July 21, 1798

Victory of the Pyramids


On July 21, the French Army arrived outside Cairo, on the left bank of the Nile, a few kilometers north of the Pyramids of Gizeh. Napoleon, still perfectly informed by his network of scouts, knew that a powerful force of Mamelouk cavalry awaited him. He consequently adopted the formation division squares which together formed a broad circle near to the river. The squares were commanded by Desaix, Reynier, Dugua, Menou, Bon and Rampon. Murad Bey this time commanded more than 6,000 horsemen and drew on the support of the fort of Embubeth, defended by 1,500 janissaires. He also had the gunboats of Ibrahim Bey.


At the briefing prior to the battle, Napoleon had told his officers: "Remember; from atop these pyramids forty centuries look down upon you." Murad Bey led his entire cavalry force against the squares of Reynier and Desaix. He was repelled with the loss of several hundred men. Bon and Rampon attacked the fortifications at Embubeth and overran them. The general counter-attack was sounded and the Mamelukes, driven back in the Nile, fled, throwing themselves into the water, which carried them away. In three hours of combat, Murad Bey had lost 2,000 men. He escaped towards Upper-Egypt. Ibrahim, who had not participated in the battle, chose to retreat towards Sinai.


July 24, 1798

Napoleon enters Cairo


There was no triumphal entry such as the one that took place in Milan. Muslim culture is quite different from that of the Italians, particularly as regards the women, whose faces cannot be seen. However the sheiks and the ulemas sincerely recognized the new authority. Napoleon installed himself in the palace of Murad Bey and started at once to dictate directives and decrees for the administration of Cairo and the provinces. Soon he would be acknowledged by the Arabs as a great, magnanimous Sultan.


August 1 and 2, 1798

After two and a half months of fruitless searching, Nelson eventually came upon the French fleet, moored at Aboukir. Admiral Brueys, knowing that he was going to be attacked, had chosen this position because he thought that his reduced, inexperienced crews had a better chance near shore than on the open sea. Napoleon, with his usual great good sense, had a presentiment that Brueys could not resist Nelson, and had dispatched a courier with orders for him to take refuge in Corfou, then a French possession. Unfortunately, the captain carrying the missive was intercepted en route and killed. On August 1, at 6 p.m, Nelson, with remarkable audacity, sailed into the bay, unaware of its shallow waters. The Culloden, his leading ship, ran aground on a sand bank. This was no great misfortune, however, as it served as a marker that the others sailed  around, to pass on either side of the column of fourteen French vessels, which were soon caught between two fires. A violent battle raged all night. The English, who enjoyed great superiority in the quality of their ships and their crews, also possessed a frightening weapon that the French did not have: the caronade. This short gun spat out grapeshot and massacred the sailors who were exposed on deck.


There were many acts of heroism. Brueys was killed upon receiving his third wound before his great flagship, the Orient, devastated by fire, finally exploded. Dupetit-Thouars, commanding the Tonnant, his legs torn off, had himself placed in a barrel of bran to direct the fighting until he finally succumbed. The toll was catastrophic for the French; only two frigates the Diane and the Justice, commanded by Decrès, and two ships, the Guillaume-Tell and the Généreux under the orders of Admiral Villeneuve, managed to escape. The English had three severely damaged vessels: the Bellerophon, the Majestic and the Vanguard, which required several months of repairs before they were able to return to service. French losses numbered 1,700 French killed and 1,500 wounded compared to 300 killed and 800 wounded on the English side.


The French received some cold comfort when, south of Crete, the Généreux seized the Leander, which had been sent to England by Nelson to carry home the trophies of his victory.


When Napoleon learned of the disaster at Aboukir, he assembled his officers and told them: "We are well and truly established in this country, which is fortunate because we no longer have a fleet to take us back to Europe. We are now obliged to accomplish great things, and we shall! So! Let us remember that the overland routes remain open to us in all directions."


August 22, 1798

Foundation of the Institute of Egypt


The Institute, under the chairmanship of Monge, participated in the organization and development of the country. It oversaw the construction of mills, furnaces, roads, and canals and solved the problem of supplying Cairo, a city of 300,000 inhabitants, with food. It charted the route of the future Suez Canal. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone would later make possible the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Champollion. Extensive research was conducted in archaeology, botany, geology and zoology. Thanks to the friendly contacts established between Egyptian and French scientists, Sultan Mohammed Ali sent, first in 1826, and every year thereafter, a number of students to France to pursue higher studies. In 1836, France also received the gift of the splendid Luxor Obelisk that stands proudly in the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in commemoration of the services rendered by Napoleon to the Egyptian people.




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